Tuesday, May 18, 2021

When non-conformity is necessary

Patricia Mukhim

This is an age when a smartphone is a necessary gadget even if the user has little or no education. That education would, supposedly, help in understanding the complicity and complexity of spreading fake news.
After all, who cares about boring, old mainstream journalism with its propensity to claim a sacro-sanctity that’s no longer kosher. This is a bright, young generation of millennials used to instant coffee and instant gratification. They can write Queen’s English with a dash of American irreverence and there are no elders or juniors, only peers. The world to them is hot, flat, and crowded, if one were to borrow Thomas Friedman’s words but it is also equal.
But mind you this generation is also conscious of gender. Swear words are reserved for bitches. Men are respected for maintaining a respectful silence in front of millennials. So welcome to this world. If you don’t like it, go kill yourself. That’s the rule of the game. In this game of thrones, even the Church is far behind and has very little influence on the minds and behaviour of millennials.
The Orwellian euphemisms are back with a bang today – “War is Peace, Violence is Safety, Censorship is Comfort”. Then there is the war on history and the denial or demolition of ugly or inconvenient historical facts. So everything is plunged down the memory hole. No wonder today there is a race for renaming roads, parks and what have you. Our world today is replete with intolerant culture warriors.
This is not dystopia; rather it’s a world peopled by authoritarian brutalists. In this world you don’t use words to illuminate the complexity of reality but to eradicate the complexity of the real world where jobs are hard to come by, but, expenses for recharging the smart phone must be met. But who cares anyway?
There is a need to meet peers to craft Che Guevera sort of messages and dash them to the conformist group that waits with bated breath for the message, which they can forward with pride to their friends and friends of friends and friends of their friends. And thus, the call for retributive violence begins.
That’s life as it is lived by millennials today who believe the world owes them a living and parents owe them regular pocket money because it is their fault for sending them to school, college and university and then not being able to land them a job worth the certificate on which the qualification is neatly written in calligraphy.
What schools, colleges and universities do not teach millennials is dissent – a non-negotiable attribute and the only thing that leads to intellectual progress. Without dissent life is like a stagnant, murky pond where even lotuses refuse to grow. Thomas Kuhn, the revolutionary American physicist, historian and philosopher, correctly commented that competing scientific theories proposed by intellectual dissidents are often rejected by the established scientific elite until they are no longer deniable. There are many examples but how can we not name Galileo Galilei and Nicolas Copernicus.
However, it is not only in science that intellectual dissidence is imperative. Much of John Locke’s thinking ran counter to the prevailing thought of the time, as was Edmund Burke’s. As someone rightly remarked, “The history of ideas is unimaginable without dissent.”
Often we believe we live in an ideal world where political and social dissent is in full play and accepted as the only means to bring about change. We tend to believe that activism and public discussions would provoke people to want change and work towards it. But does our world encourage public discussions where people can freely air their views without being shouted down? Perhaps this is possible in a handful of spaces. But such spaces are dwindling because we no longer live in a free world today. Our thoughts, expressed publicly on social media, are brutalised and pulverised. According to Freedom House – an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world – over half the world lives “un-free” or only “partially free” lives, and even in free societies, freedoms are often under pressure.
The pressure to conform is becoming real. “If you don’t think like us, you are against us,” is the code of honour today. But what conformity kills is critical, free thinking. Alas the need to clings to our groups is so dominant that we miss discovering what we, ourselves, truly think and want. The only good news yet is that the real “us” is trying its best to come out and assert independence from the claustrophobia of group thinking. It is important to set that real “us” free to live the passionate, authentic, inspired life for which we were created, simply because conforming squelches our truth. It was John Kenneth Galbraith who said, “Humanity’s most valuable assets have been the non-conformists. Were it not for the non-conformists, he who refuses to be satisfied to go along with the continuance of things as they are, and insists upon attempting to find new ways of bettering things, the world would have known little progress.”
We have often encountered families that all vote for one person, not because he/she is the best candidate but because the head of the family demands conformity. The question to ask is, “Can everyone in the family agree to vote for one political party/candidate? Isn’t that conformist thinking? Do families debate the purpose of voting and the credentials of candidates?”
Similarly, quite often we have little choice in deciding our professions because the elders have decided it for us. And we are the typical square pegs in round holes. So too with religion! We are born into a particular religion and don’t know better. We are uncritical and simply conform.
Well, this herd mentality is dangerous. Indeed, conformity is dangerous for society. Psychologists say that to be truly happy we have to think for ourselves and not allow our views to be appropriated. We must be allowed to choose our own battles and to think and say what we believe is right, even when we are alone.
Conformity drives away every vestige of critical thinking and logic takes leave. Many of us don’t stop and think why we do what we do just because everyone else is doing it. We even forget to question whether it is right or wrong; we follow the other sheep. Religious extremism spreads because people unquestioningly conform to a particular view, out of fear or blind faith. Such people are open to negative influences and often follow instructions without questioning. They can carry out acts of violence and terror. That is how terrorists are brainwashed and so too many of us in different ways.
Today much of the religious sectarianism, racism, political hatred, violence and even war could be avoided if people decide not to allow themselves to be brainwashed by any single idea or ideology. It is time to question the world around us; question our own lives and question why we do what we do. If we find ourselves conforming to one viewpoint because the society we live and operate in desires that we do so, then we have lost the purpose of our lives. Conformity has never brought anything good but yes it breeds mediocrity and populates the world with dangerous people blinded by a single idea/ideology. It is the anti-thesis to diversity, which is the essence of life.
My question today is where is the counterpoint in any society today? Are contrarian views discussed in universities and colleges? Is free-thinking allowed? Do we respect all history or only some of it? What part of history do we reject and why?
The writer is Editor of the Shillong Times and can be contacted at patricia.mukhim@ gmail.com (Courtesy: TS)